Thursday, September 24, 2015

How to Evaluate a Small Publisher

1. Ask to see the boilerplate contract.

A. Lloyd Jassin has a list of things that should be in a contract.
B. Morse, Barnes-Brown, Pendleton also has one

There are lots of places to find lists of red flags in contracts.
C. EPIC has one here 
D. The Authors Guild has one here
E. The amazing and invaluable Victoria Strauss has a great resource here.

2. Ask if the terms are negotiable
That means the publisher will negotiate with you or an agent or a contract review specialist to change the terms of the contract either by deleting clauses, amending clauses, adding clauses and/or changing royalty rates.

If a publisher says s/he doesn't negotiate, you've got a big red flag.

3. Look at the books they're publishing
Do they look professional? Trust your instincts here. You've read books, you've held books in your hands, you can recognize when one looks cheap and poorly designed. What they are publishing now is probably what your book will look like too. I will freely confess I am a book snob. Maybe you aren't.

4. Is the only way to buy books through the publisher's website?
Most readers don't like giving their credit card information to a site they don't know or use often. If the only way to buy books from this publisher is on their own website, that's a problem.

A.  Are books for sale on Amazon and BN. com?
Verify. And check the prices. The LIST price, not this discounted price.

B. Are the books listed at Ingram and Baker & Taylor?If they're not, your chance to get into bookstores and libraries other than as a special order is close to zero.

5. Look for the price of the books.
Are hardcovers more than $25.00
Are trade paperbacks  more than $15.00
Are Ebooks more than 9.99

If the books are overpriced (I didn't say over valued so lets not open that tin of gummy bears ok?) you've got a problem.

6. How long has the publisher been in business?
One of my ironclad rules is not to be first. Let the new publisher learn those first hard lessons on someone else's client. I like to be third. Or tenth.

Has the publisher been in business less than five years? That's a brand new publisher since publishing is a very long lead industry.

You know who discovered that the hard way? Amazon. They knew a lot about selling books, but selling books and publishing books are two VERY different things. They had a lot of money and some very smart people but they still had a bumpy road the first few years.

7.  Is the focus of their website writers or readers?
If it's writers, they're not using their website to promote their product. A publisher should be focused on their product: books. If the website is largely about how to become one of their authors, how to query etc, that's a problem.

A lot of small publishers do very well. They know their business and they work very hard.
I've sold books to a goodly number of them.

Some aren't.

Make sure you can tell the difference.


angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Thank you for this and for those links. I've copied and saved the contract examples. I've never heard of 'control of characters.' Do you, kindest queen of Sharks, know of any authors who lost control over their characters.

Thanks to your blog and your generous advice I am negotiating a healthy contract with one of my galleries. The terms and conditions for book contracts are very different from publishing 2D artworks but at least I know what's important. And have enough clues to find the information I need right now.

I think I'll go burn some cupcakes.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Dog-eared! Thank you, Janet.

And ha! "lets not open that tin of gummy bears." Sooo true. Good to make the distinction: over valued, over priced.

AJ Blythe said...

Another great resource to file away from QOTKU.

I've seen a lot of peers publish with small presses, only to find themselves in strife because the publisher doesn't survive the long lead time Janet talked about.

Still, this just illustrates again why I want an agent - because they will know which publishers to query.

Donnaeve said...

Angie said, "Do you, kindest queen of Sharks, know of any authors who lost control over their characters."

I bet she does. I lose control over mine all the time. :)

Anyway, I know about three writers who have published with a couple small publishers, two of them with the same one, and one off on his own. The two who are at the same small press are in Australia, I think, and the other is in the U.K.

I'm sorry to say, I too, am a book snob. I know what sort of covers I like and don't like, what I think looks like a professionally rendered illustration or graphic to enhance a story. IMO, these illustrations were so bad, I actually cringed when they shared the news, and I sincerely wondered why they couldn't see for themselves they were NOT doing their work justice. Maybe they were just so happy to actually have the interest of someone, they would have accepted a Crayola drawing on notebook stick figures. IDK. It boggles the mind though, b/c yes, they read books. They've held books.

Dena Pawling said...

Love the contract links! Thanks for that.

Angie - Recently, Michael Connelly has mentioned the phrase "when I got the rights to Harry Bosch back."

DLM said...

For the book snobs: he posts seldom, but it's always quality - do you follow the Caustic Cover Critic? LOVE that blog.

If my characters were under my control, my books would SUCK. I am nobody to give any authority to, I have a wee and paltry brain, it's far better to have unruly midwives changing the whole face of my novel so they can be as interesting and exciting as they should be.

This is one of those "bookmark it" posts, because it applies well beyond the direct question as asked.

Cindy C said...

Wow, another post full of great information and resources. Thanks, Janet, for such a thorough list of things to look for.

I'd never thought of myself as a book snob, but back when I worked in book retail we often special ordered books from small publishers. Sometimes when I'd open the package the book just felt wrong and I'd think, "Ooh, glad I didn't order this book for me!" Some, even most, were beautiful, but there were definitely publishers whose product didn't look or feel as nice as others.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am also a book snob. My house could serve as a fair library. I love the smell, the touch, the bindings, the typeset, the covers of a well-done book. Another reason I want an agent is for this kind of experience. I do wonder, however, how agents decide which publisher to approach? When would an agent approach a small, no name publisher? I am trying to avoid the itty bitty unable to get my book on the bookstore shelves publisher by getting an agent. Even if it means taking longer to get published. I think of it as delayed gratification.

This is, once more, invaluable information. I don't know Jack about publishing contracts. I suppose I best start learning.

Unknown said...

Oh man, I so remember as a child wandering the book store, buying my first book, getting home, feeling the cover, smelling the spine. Was it the glue? Probably giving myself cancer. The quality of a book. I still think it’s terribly important. A big factor that hooked me on reading forever.

And for DLM, my characters are always in control. I feel like every day all I do is struggle to keep up. In that way they are a lot like children.

Laura Mary said...

This is one of those 'save for later' posts I like to collect (and file under 'Things I never knew I needed to worry about'!)

I don't like to use the phrase book snob, it's not that I look down on the crappy looking books (it's not their fault!) but I am an absolute sucker for a beautiful cover.
I never much liked the original UK Harry Potter covers, so when they released the 'grown up' covers, I bought those. Then I found the American ones, and they were gorgeous so I bought those too. Then the German ones. Then the Chinese...
Then all the anniversary editions came out, and now there seem to be new covers out every other flipping year! And it would be rude to start a collection and not finish it wouldn't it?

So yes, beautiful books are my Kryptonite.

Also shoes.

french sojourn said...

What a veritable cornucopia of information. Thank you soo much.

Donnaeve: ha! Yeah, in one of my w.i.p. I found the two main characters enjoying an after dinner "getting to know each other" dealio...not amused, but they were hell bent on the idea.

DLM said...

This is a wayward comment, off topic and self-indulgent, but I just got an R on a query from March 6. On a novel which, as I've mentioned here for months now, I've let go of and is lying fallow as "inventory" and I'm trying to accept will never see the light of day.

I never have a problem with rejections, but seven months on almost, this one's knocked me for six.

It's selfish to post this, but the community here means so much to me I know y'all will understand, and I hope Janet will forgive.

I'm reminding myself to look FORWARD, not back, and to do something with the WIP as soon as I can, rather than to itch and obsess and be sad.

But this is saddening. Even "no response means no" seems almost kinder at this point.

Laura Mary said...

Oh Diane :-( It seems all the more crueller for having moved on to your next project. Like being taught a lesson that you've already learnt the hard way.

I think it's more than ok to have days where it gets to you. If rejections just deflected off us with no impact, we'd never learn from them.
Shelving a book seems like such a sad loss. No it's not the end of the world, but it *is* sad, and you shouldn't have to feel like rejections don't hurt a bit.

Hopefully you can do something fun today, maybe something completely non-writerly will help you feel better.

Kitten videos are a good start. Chocolate and wine are even better.

Colin Smith said...

When you post articles like this, Janet, I can't help thinking some of your colleagues are shaking their heads saying, "No, no, no! Too much information! You can't go telling them about stuff like this--then they'll be able to do our job!" Of course, we know that your sharing of information like this only demonstrates your value, it doesn't diminish it. Like the people at work I help with computer issues by showing them how to do stuff themselves. Yes, it means they don't need my help all the time, but they will keep coming back to me as someone they trust, someone they know is truly looking out for their best interest.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Hang in there Diane. Most writers, I would guess, have 1-2 books they have to put aside. I have done so myself. It's no fun. Puppies (your equivalent of that) and chocolate and some quality alone time ( I go horseback riding in North Georgia mountains) or chicken wings and cold beer with friends helps recenter you. But don't give up. Maybe you revise this book and breathe new life into it or your next book breaks through. To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee's 2nd book. Her 1st book spent half a century in inventory. Everyone's journey is different. There is no such thing as a loser who keeps trying so don't give up. Something will hit with the right agent and then publisher. I can tell by your thoughtful posts that you are a gifted writer. You will make it.

DLM said...

Laura Mary, thank you. "Like being taught a lesson that you've already learnt the hard way." THIS. I'm telling myself it hurts because I *did* something, and because what I did matters, even if only to me.

Kitten vids. :) And I get to go home to a Gossamer cat, too. Much to be grateful for. His fur has magical AND analgesic properties. And I should take Pen on a nice long walk, because: hooray for puppies.

And again, Janet, my apologies.

I find #5 especially arresting, in our list above, because it's hard not to wonder if some authors don't look at high prices and think "Yeah! I am worth $32.50!" before the dismay sets in ... Have you had to talk any authors down on expectations like that before?

Colin Smith said...

Diane: I'm sorry. Yeah, that sucks. We can get used to rejection, and learn not to take it personally and let it drag us down. But that doesn't mean it loses its sting. It's like fitness. Being fit doesn't mean you never get worn out. It just takes longer to wear out, and you recover quicker.

Onward and upward, my friend! :)

DLM said...

EMG, I had two put aside before I ever started Ax, and that doesn't even begin to cover all my abortive fancies. :) And thank you VERY much for that final sentence. Praise given in this forum means a great deal.

And I have a puppy and a puddy, so there will be much consolation after work today. (Gossamer the Editor cat, the little fella in the bucket up to our right here - that's my kiddo.)

Colin, I know not of this "fitness" of which you speak. Does it come with cookies?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

"Abortive fancies" - so many of those myself. Diane, what a wonderful turn of phrase- proof that you have the chops. I love that. :)

BJ Muntain said...

Thanks for the contract links! I love legalese. (Yes, I do. Especially when it's telling me my novel is going to be published by a certain time, giving me certain royalties.) I do think it's very important for authors to know what is in their contracts. I think it's important to know what is in any contract a person signs - even if it's a Terms of Service contract for a website. And if an author is on their own in negotiating a contract, that author needs to know what to negotiate and how. And having some legal assistance from an agent or independent lawyer is practically a necessity.

Janet said: "If it's writers, they're not using their website to promote their product. A publisher should be focused on their product: books. If the website is largely about how to become one of their authors, how to query etc, that's a problem."

I mentioned a publisher just like that earlier, who is very active on Twitter. It makes me sad, because they publish the very sort of stories I write, but I don't trust them, for this reason.

Regarding small publishers in Canada:

Pricing is a bit different in Canada. Canadian books have always been priced higher than American books, even when the exchange rate was even. I think this price difference decreased once came along and people could order books from the US at the exchange rate. Also, books published in Canada often cost more than those published in the US, probably because Canadian publishers have smaller print runs, while the large American publishers can have much larger print runs, therefore getting a better bulk price. It does kind of suck, though.

Donna: Of the writers whose works had the cheap-looking covers... did they even have a say in the cover? Not all authors do, though small presses sometimes give the author more choice. There are a lot of authors out there - at big or small publishers - who really don't like their covers.

Of course, you might be meaning that they shouldn't have chosen those publishers - which is something they *did* have some control over. But that's when an author has to really sit down and figure out what's important. Covers may not be as important as getting into the catalogues or higher royalties to some people.

Me, I'm not a cover snob - I've always found covers to be completely different from what you're going to see in the novel, and they change so often. In other words, covers almost always disappoint me.

Some years ago, a friend of mine - purely as a drawing exercise, for fun - drew what she envisioned to be the cover for the work I'm now shopping around. I liked it. I don't know if its cover will be similar when it finally gets published - probably not - or if I'll be disappointed if it's different. But I did like that drawing.

DLM said...

Gossie often prefers to think he's Janet's cat, but he deigns to live with me when not in the Boroughs. If we can ever get her for a James River Writers event, he's going to take us to a bar and he's buyin'.

Colin Smith said...

Diane: It's a strange thing, and something I am being forced to acquaint myself with, having long neglected it. I have heard chocolate is good after a workout. I don't know who said that--maybe it was me. Good enough! :)

DLM said...

BJ, I think I may be a non-snob as well (I mean, I read Trek novels sometimes); some of the best novels I've ever read had covers which ended up being entirely misleading. It's certainly true authors don't necessarily have input with publishers.

I do love GOOD covers and design, though. A beautifully made book has the most absolutely wonderful *THUNK* when you snap it shut, a timbre not entirely unlike a single heartbeat. I'll *THUNK* a book more than once just to feel and hear that.

Karen McCoy said...

Diane--so sorry. Everyone is right, though--your talent is obvious.

A brief note on Baker & Taylor. B&T will post books even if they are unavailable so they can tell potential buyers how large their database is. I'm not sure if there's a way to see the availability of books on B&T without a login, but I know a few small pubs that do well and usually have material available. Spencer Hill comes to mind, but if people want a more complete list, I'd be happy to put one together.

Susan said...

Off Topic: DLM, I'm sorry. That's like pouring salt in a wound that's just begun to heal :( Everyone else has some wonderful advice, so I'll just echo them: indulge in your favorite things for a bit, then add fuel to your internal fire and keep going. Do you follow Literary Rejections on Twitter? Not only do they post some upbeat encouragements that really sink in after a while, but they have a website listing rejection stories of authors. It helps to put it in perspective that you're really not alone.

Donnaeve said...

Diane - sorry about the R. That's like somebody coming along and kicking you in the pants after you've forgiven them.

Le sigh.

Book covers. I can't help but be a snob about covers. There is nothing on God's green earth that would prompt me to pick up a book with a cheesy, poorly done cover. Maybe I ought to regret the great story within, but I guess what I don't know won't hurt me. What propels me to pick up a book IS the cover initially. Before I ever read a word. beautiful, well done cover + great title = Donna picking up book. So, there I go with my nose in the air...


Anywho - I have no idea if they had any say - I suspect they did, but b/c I know all three had illustrators drawing the covers, it's likely they were too polite to say anything. (Like I would be.)

OFF TOPIC - I just learned something. Am I the only English speaking person out here who didn't know that "eying" is also correct as "eyeing?" I've only ever used "eyeing." Not that other WEIRD looking word.

BJ Muntain said...

Donna: You are not the only person to not know that. But I despise the 'eying' spelling, so I prefer to believe that it doesn't exist.

Diane: Nothing wrong with reading Trek novels. Have you read James Blish's tie-ins of the original series? Published probably in the 60s and 70s. Great writing - I highly recommend them. They're what dragged me into science fiction in the first place. Now I write it, too.

Susan: I like Literary Rejections, too. The account on Twitter, I mean. No one likes actual rejections.

Colin Smith said...

OK, OK, I'll confess to being a bit of a cover snob too. Though if I want the book badly enough, I'll make allowances. But we really do judge books by their covers. I do, anyway, even though I know I shouldn't. If I was self-pubbing, that's where I'd probably invest the most money--the cover.

Susan said...

BJ: Literary Rejections vs. literary rejections. One of these things is not like the other ;)

Donnaeve said...

Hank! I just now saw your comment about your characters "dealio."

*snort laughing!*

Panda in Chief said...

Definitely saving this one to read and comment more later!
Did someone say something about cookies? And cupcakes?
excellent resources! thank you.

Kate Larkindale said...

Good covers are so important. When I got an offer from a small press, I almost didn't sign with them because the only covers of theirs I'd seen were so awful, I couldn't bear to think about my book being sold that way. But then I went to look at their site and discovered they had published thousands of books, and not all the covers were horrible.

And in the end, when it came to that point, they asked me to choose the central cover elements myself. The artist then manipulated those core images into something that reflected the book. And I was very happy with it in the end.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Invaluable information - Thanks, Janet.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Thank you, Janet, for all this information. Bookmarked for future reference.

Susan, happy birthday (a day late) and wishing you many more! I hope you plan to celebrate all week.

Diane, I know you're probably already over it, but sending virtual hugs your way for the "late hit" rejection. Loss of down and 15 yard penalty for whoever took so long to send it. I agree with what others have said-- whatever the reason for it, I sincerely doubt it was the quality of your writing. Onward.

Lance said...

Thank you for this very valuable information and the links. Definitely will bookmark those.

DLM said...

Karen, goodness, thank you (compliments from this group have great weight!). Susan, Donna, kdj thank you.

BJ, looking at my vintage Mudd's Angels, I've decided I actually quite like the cover. I've read more Keith DeCandido probably than anyone, but will peel an eyeball (Donna, or eyball? ;)) for Blish next time I'm at the book tables at RavenCon ... Because, like everyone here I am sure, my TBR pile just is. not. big enough.

Home tonight with dinner on the way (yes, rather late - but Margarita pizza of lovely quality, right to my door, and from a client of my company too!) and at least one Angry Orchard cider to go with it.

As to the lateness of the rejection, I actually applaud someone not settling for "no answer means no" and I can't say 7 months is the worst thing I've ever seen. As rudeness goes, this is pretty low on my scale.

Janet, my final apology for the evening, for threadjacking. I'll send the boy along with a nice bottle and some chocolates soon ...

Anonymous said...

"(I didn't say over valued so lets not open that tin of gummy bears ok?)"

And If you do, make sure it's not the 5 pound bag of sugar free gummy bears as evidenced in customer reviews.

If you do, however, be sure and blog about it so we can share in the adventure. We're here for you. Warning, don't read the reviews unless you have a leisurely afternoon to burn.

Leah B said...


Not sure how familiar you are with the Vampire Diaries series, but that's the closest I can think of to an author losing her characters. LJ Smith published the first trilogy in 1991-2. She signed a work for hire contract to write the first trilogy, wrote another trilogy for them in the 2000s, then was fired when they didn't like where she was taking the story. Since it was work for hire, she doesn't own the copyrights to the series. She's continued the series on Amazon Worlds, I think it is? Where they publish fan fiction? but they're not "canon".

Janet could probably speak to this issue more clearly, but I don't think that kind of "work for hire" contract is anything querying authors have to worry about.

BJ Muntain said...

Leah: You're right. 'Work for hire' is a different animal from getting your work published. You're paid to write something (a novel, a report, a manual), or you have a job that includes you write these things.

'Work for hire' fiction can help a writer get a start, and can give some very good experience. Donald Maass used to do this. But the characters, plots, worlds, and words are not your own. They belong to the company who is paying you to write these things.

Work for hire fiction includes such series as Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Sweet Valley High, and so forth. Sometimes the company that hires the writers will give one pseudonym for all the writers - Carolynn Keene for the Nancy Drew books, for example.

However, I have heard that some publishers will try to use a non-compete clause to say you can't write novels with these characters and get them published anywhere else. That's why you want to know about this possibility when negotiating a contract - so you can negotiate that clause, among others. That's also why an agent is such a great deal - a knowledgeable person on *your* side in such negotiations is worth their weight in sapphires.

Not to say that you don't understand it, Leah. Just to make sure that everyone knows what 'work-for-hire' is.

BJ Muntain said...

Note: A lot of what I said above is covered in the links Janet gave us.

Leah B said...

BJ - Thanks for the clarification; I don't know much about work for hire so I tried to be careful about how I worded my post. Always helps to have someone who knows things chime in.

My understanding is she was hired for a supernatural series, then created the characters and everything herself. So perhaps saying "she lost control of them" was misleading, because they were always owned by someone else. But it's the first thing that sprang to mind when I finally got around to reading comments tonight.

BJ Muntain said...

Leah: That would really suck. To create characters, get to know them that well, then being cut off from those characters... I can see why she would turn to fanfic, if only to continue the stories as she knew them.

Panda in Chief said...

Losing control of my characters is one of the things I fear and care about. They have become so dear to me, and I have tried to be very careful not to let that happen. Of course, within my comics, I'm afraid I have lost control of them and they often disagree with me as I am writing/drawing.

Thanks again for these great articles. I have saved them to add to my reference library of Shark wisdom.